Many years ago, well in in the fall of 2005 anyway, when I had just started reviewing books and was still only reviewing ones that I had bought on my own, I stumbled across a book called The Hickory Staff by Robert Scott and Jay Gordon. It was the first book in a trilogy called The Eldarn Sequence and I thought it was great.
I e-mailed the authors and sent them a link to my review not really expecting anything in return, so I was pleasantly surprised to receive a thank you note from Robert Scott. (Quotes from that review have now ended up on the back covers of both the second, Lessek's Key, and third books, The Larion Senators of the series). The result was that we arranged that I would send Scott some interview questions and we'd publish the result on line.
A month later his co-author and father-in-law Jay Gordon had died. Robert and Jay had started working on the series when Jay had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. ALS is one of the nastier illnesses out there, with the victim's system gradually shutting down without them ever losing awareness. If you're really unlucky you can linger for a long time, suffering horrible pain and completely immobilized.
Jay had always loved Epic Fantasy, so although neither had ever attempted this type of writing before – Robert had been a classical guitar player and a history major in University and Jay a technical engineer – they began to create their new universe. When Jay died in November of 2005 Lessek's Key had been handed in to the publishers, but The Larion Senators had only been roughed out leaving Robert to finish the series on his own.
When The Larion Senators was published last fall, I asked Robert if he'd like to do a summation sort of interview and he agreed. Unfortunately he had also just started a new job as a high school principal, and was swamped with work, life, and trying to actually write non-Eldarn related material. Somehow though he found time to answer these questions, and as usual is very candid about the whole process.
If you've read the trilogy I'm sure you'll find the conclusion of Jay and Robert's epic as interesting as you did the final chapter of The Eldarn Sequence itself. For those who haven't read the books I hope it encourages you to do so, as they are a great read. There are some spoilers included in this interview – but only in a general sort of way and won't really spoil the story for anyone – but Robert is nice enough to point them out anyway for those who care about such things.
The last time we talked Hickory Staff had been released for about three months, Lessek's Key was with the publishers, and you were gearing yourself up for writing The Larion Senators. Senators was the only book you ended up having to write almost completely by yourself. Did you find that easier or more difficult?
Robert: (Spoiler warning!) Working on the Eldarn books with Jay was one of the most important things I’ll do in my lifetime. I’ve had a few years to think back on it, and while it wasn’t Tuesdays With Morrie, it was something special. I didn’t think much about it while we were working, but looking back now, I am staggered at how much Jay suffered without complaining and how the Eldarn stories provided him with a much-needed break from the emotional and physical exhaustion he faced each day. Starting The Larion Senators, I had a significant pile of notes, mostly driven by un-addressed story or character strands we’d left unresolved in Lessek’s Key. Jay and I had discussed the end of the series, even before we knew how The Hickory Staff would wrap up, and I endeavoured to stay true to that original vision. A few times along the way, characters took the story in a different direction, but that had been happening for years, and I didn’t think Jay would object too much – as long as Steven and Gilmour ended up on Jones Beach as we had planned.
I'm sure that you anticipated there being a difference without having Jay there at least to bounce ideas off, but did you run into anything that you hadn't anticipated?
Robert: By the time Jay died, he was communicating via blinks and eye movements – selecting vowels and consonants from a laminated grid pasted to a cut up cereal box. It was brutally slow, but one could see that he wanted to be heard and understood. He was less concerned with my progress on Lessek’s Key and more interested in the evolution of the Jay M. Gordon Foundation. When he felt up to it, though, we worked. I told him about wanting to add a few chapters on Steven’s adventures at sea, and we spent a few days poring over books on eighteenth century sailing vessels and deciding how Mark Jenkins might harness the Larion spell table on a ship. I think Jay trusted me to stick to our plan: writing a traditional epic, like the novels we read in the '70s and the '80s, books that started us down this road 30 years ago. So, no, I didn’t really run into anything I hadn’t anticipated, but as a fledgling scribbler, I wasn’t sure what to anticipate! I confess that the bit about the carrack was something I added in the end. I wanted to bring some closure to Brand Krug’s character, and Stalwick Rees was just such a buffoon, I had to get a bit of extra mileage out of him. I wasn’t expecting him to be so pitiable, but by the time that carrack chapter was finished, I was pleased with Brand and Stalwick – that was unexpected.
What was the hardest thing technically about writing this without Jay's input?
Robert: The technical aspects were probably the easiest. From the earliest drafts of The Hickory Staff, I did the writing – Jay was unable to type; he lost dexterity in his hands early on. The tough part about finishing the series was communication. We tried all manner of strategies to ask and answer questions. Often, my wife or I read passages to Jay, and he asked questions, pointed out inconsistencies, or made suggestions about characters or plot dilemmas. But progress was slow. We were patient, and Jay was a trouper. He was trapped in that bed, trapped in that body, and it was the least we could do to wait while he blinked out his thoughts. If he didn’t have editorial comments to make, Jay would select “OK” on his communication board, and we’d move on. He trusted Jo (Jo Fletcher: Editor from Orion books) and me to finish the series according to the original vision, and, for the most part, we did.
I don't think I can imagine what it must have been like trying to write Senators on your own, considering the history of the trilogy, and the reasons for writing it in the first place. How difficult was it emotionally to work on it?
Robert: Actually, it was easy. The story was something I had to finish. It was bigger than Jay or me by that time, and I owed it to Steven, Hannah, and Mark to see them home safely – or to see them dismembered by a grettan! There were plenty of emotions wrapped up in the process, but few of them slowed me down. If anything, the motivating stress had me looking for more time, more hours sequestered in my basement scribbling the next chapter. Jo Fletcher was instrumental in seeing the series through to its end. She checked on Jay every week and made certain that Susan knew how the books were doing. Knowing that The Hickory Staff and Lessek’s Key were selling in bookstores, airports, and drug stores around the world, Jay was always up for a planning session. I kept my nose down, writing and editing, even the weekend we were in town for Jay’s funeral. I admit that when I finally had copies of all three books side-by-side, I took a few minutes just to sit and look at them there on the shelf. It was a ten-year commitment; I was glad to see it through. I’m not sure I’ll ever amount to much of a writer, but I know we did something important in finishing those books.
At the end of book two, Lessek's Key, you had plotline and characters scattered all over two worlds. Did you ever have any concerns about how you were going to be able to pick up all the pieces and tie everything together neatly by the end of Senators?
Robert: No. Most of the wandering our characters did over the course of the first two books (much of which we were chastised for by readers who didn’t believe it would ever come together) was deliberate. I knew I wanted Steven to pull together an array of experiences, thoughts, ideas, and concepts when he faced the final challenge on Jones Beach. When The Hickory Staff was released, I received plenty of e-mail from people who were either angry that we had left so many plot and character lines hanging or were tentatively trusting that Jay and I would eventually tie things up. It was the same when Lessek’s Key ended as well. We dealt with most of Nerak’s baggage but still hadn’t addressed the entity that had possessed him. We established a few things early in The Hickory Staff that linked directly to that entity. I was pleased when I finally received e-mail from readers who had stuck with the Eldarn books all along. People were happy to see that unexpected bits of story lines or characters’ experiences came around two books later. The map of symbols, characters, story lines, and questions is a 12-foot section of butcher paper I had hanging in my basement. There are so many arrows, circles, lines, and scratch marks all over it, I’m sure that given another year or two even I won’t be able to decipher it.
I know I'm going to regret this but here goes: Throughout the trilogy the character of Steven Taylor is obsessed with Maths and what starts off in the first book as an amusement becomes something he has to master if he has a hope of defeating the minion of evil and controlling the Fold. Do the maths he uses have any basis in reality and what did you have to do to come up with it? (Somebody could get the impression that you're a high school principal or something with comments like "the calculus you never thought you'd use in real life.")
Robert: Steven’s maths obsession is perhaps my favourite part of the Eldarn series. From Malagon’s lock box, to Egyptians squaring the circle, telephone and calculator keypads, Larion timepieces, and trapezoidal deductions on Jones Beach, I love every line of a story whose hero is a math geek. How many epic adventures end in a sword battle, a David-and-Goliath fist-fight, or a square-jawed Horatio standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his square-jawed colleagues? For my money, it’s too many. Yes, I suppose that’s the high school principal in me showing the colour of my biases, but hey, fire me; I’m a teacher at heart. Given the state of math instruction and assessment in American public education these days, perhaps we could use a few more epic heroes who, when their lives are on the line, rely more on their mathematics knowledge than their ability to rig a brick of C4 inside a villain’s Cadillac. There are a few elements of Steven’s character that I’d change if I were ever to do it all over again. His obsession with deductive reasoning in mathematics isn’t one of them. As a side note, readers should check out the list of people I acknowledge in each book for ensuring I understood enough maths to write those sections. My own math knowledge is abysmal. I sometimes cheat off the diners at the next table when calculating the tip at a restaurant. Figuring a three-dimensional trapezoidal volume equation with multiple variables is a couple touchdowns beyond the y = mx +b I barely mastered back in 1984.
One of the things that impressed me the most was how the character's developed over the course of the three books. Was that something you and Jay had plotted in before starting out, or was did they develop organically along the way?
Robert: We knew with a few of the characters that we wanted them to do more of their development later in the series. Writing 750,000 words of continuous narrative, Jay and I introduced characters in The Hickory Staff who didn’t emerge as key players in the story until well into Lessek’s Key. Those decisions were deliberate. I joke often with readers kind enough to e-mail their questions that they can chart our characters’ critical developmental turning points back to the most recent death. Versen or Brynne’s death, for example, represented key moments when Jay and I allowed secondary characters – Brexan, Sallax, and Mark – to evolve. By Senators, pushing our main characters to evolve much more would have seemed contrived. So instead, we introduced new players – Captain Ford and his crew or Major Tavon and her officers, for example – to act as catalysts for what was brewing in the final act.
As a writer was there a process you used for developing a character. Take Garec for example – he takes a long and complicated journey through the trilogy, coming to grips with what he is capable of doing as an archer. How did you go about plotting his development? Did you deliberately decide to have a character who knew it was necessary to kill people to win the war, but hated the idea that he was good at it – and he become that archetype?
Robert: Garec and Mark are two of my favourite characters because of how they developed over about seven years of planning and editing these books. As for Garec, I knew I wanted him to be a trained killer who, in Book 2, wrestles with what he’s done. I hadn’t known at the time that I needed him to get shot and nearly killed. But when Jacrys shot him at the end of The Hickory Staff, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for Garec’s character to shift significantly. His return to killing, facing a cavalry charge by himself, was another moment, late in Book 2, when it seemed appropriate to shift him back for the final act. He picks up his bow and serves the Resistance with the same brutal accuracy he had wielded in Book 1, but he has changed. The Garec we know in The Larion Senators is only a shadowy reflection of the young killer we met early in the series. Again, developing these characters was a study in how and when to share details of their personalities. We played them pretty close to the vest throughout The Hickory Staff, largely because we were nervous we wouldn’t have anywhere to go with them in Lessek’s Key. (This truly pissed off a lot of readers, and were I to do it over, I might try something different.) Looking back now, I’m happy with how Brexan, Mark, Sallax, and Garec all emerged as key players as the series wound its way through Eldarn.
The end of The Larion Senators is wide open in terms of potential for what could happen next in Eldarn. Have you any plans to continue the story? I know I'm curious as to what could happen to the world next – and what happens to certain characters. Aren't you?
Robert: Due to a variety of circumstances, I am taking a bit of time off from Eldarn. I accepted a job last summer as a high school principal and have been buried to the neck in deadlines, parent complaints, teacher grievances, and student mutinies ever since. It’s a great job, and if I didn’t love it, I would have leapt from the roof of the building by now. My students are half fascinated and half bemused at the idea that their principal writes epic novels, but I think I’ve inspired a few potential scribblers to get busy and stay busy writing. As for books, I’ve finished a collection of short stories for young readers and am into the second volume of that series now. I needed to do a bit of writing that my own children could read; dismemberment, sex scenes, grettan attacks, and off-colour, Eldarni profanity are a bit edgy for grade school kids. So I created a new character, a fourth grader whose misadventures rival any white collar felon in corporate America. I enjoy writing the stories, and the local school children howl when they read each new tale. My agent has the first collection now, and I’m hoping for good news on that front in the coming months.
I’m also working on a magical realism piece. It’s a mystery/thriller – in first person – that has evolved into a science fiction/horror novel. After 750,000 words of epic, third-person storytelling, I am ready for a change – just something to stretch my legs a bit. Then I’ll get back to Eldarn. I anticipate finishing a draft of the mystery piece this coming summer and will decide then what happens next in Eldarn. I did keep the far portals viable. I don’t know why, except that I believed eventually someone needed to go back to Eldarn, if only to sweep up the damned mess we’d left there. I like the idea of a story that jumps back and forth between Lessek’s early experiences and Milla’s efforts to bring order back to Sandcliff Palace, especially one in which Milla’s decisions now somehow impact Lessek’s choices thousands of Twinmoons earlier.
A while ago you had mentioned to me you were working on a non- Eldarn novel, and had already started some rather extensive research (including attending a ritual disembowelment – or was that an autopsy?). I seem to remember that your father was a Police Detective and you had been fascinated as a kid listening to the details of his cases over dinner. Is that the mystery/crime/thriller/sci-fi sort of novel you're working on?
Robert: That’s the one. It’s based on the most grisly, terrifying, unbelievable story my father ever told around the dinner table. Our house was the place all the neighbourhood kids wanted to come to for dinner, because my father invariably regaled us with hideous stories of true crime – things from Frank Miller’s worst nightmares. What appalled us most was that Dad’s stories were true; he had the photos to prove it. I’ve never seen a graphic novel or read a Stephen King story that truly captures the essence of what happens when some raging drunk takes a chain-saw to his wife’s lover, or when five mob killers boil their lawyer in a bathtub (two examples from my sophomore year in high school). It’s astonishing, and any New Jersey homicide detective could write (and illustrate!) a book that would have the heartiest of us pissing ourselves. Looking back on it all – Dad’s long retired. He works now for a mortician; that’s poetic justice for you! – the most frightening aspect of those stories was that the killers were generally someone who lived across the street, or worse… down the hall. Rarely did a lunatic drifter terrorize a beach-front town. But the local pharmacist or Kiwanis Club treasurer did it all the time!
My current novel is loosely based on the worst of the worst, the one time when my father came home with orders from the state medical examiner to remove all his clothes and burn them in our yard before coming anywhere near us… nope, not making this up. Granted, I’m stretching an ugly criminal case into a magical realism piece with elements of horror and science fiction, but the fundamental bits of the story actually happened. And it’s a tale that’s just begging to be told, a real testament to homicide investigators everywhere.
I'd like to thank Robert Scott for taking the time to answer these questions for me, and I hope you enjoyed this conversation with him. For those who haven't yet had an opportunity to read The Eldarn Sequence you can pick up copies of the three books at any online retailer or book store near you. Although this marks the end of Robert and Jay's story, it doesn't look like it means the end of our visits to Eldarn – and I look forward to the return.